France has begun operating one of its new RQ-9 Reaper UAVs in Mali. Earlier in 2013 France decided to buy two RQ-9s and by the middle of the year had upped the order to a dozen. This was apparently with the understanding that one or two would be available for French use in Mali before the end of the year. This was less of a problem than it appears because the U.S. was already (since January 2013) operating RQ-9s in Niger, next door to Mali and the British have their own RQ-9 operations center (where satellite links allow UAV operators to control RQ-9s anywhere on the planet) in Britain that could be used to quickly train French operators. Facilities are also available in the United States, which is also were RQ-9 ground crews are also trained. The U.S. apparently delivered on its end of the deal and France got its operators and ground support personnel up to speed on time.
France was apparently not pleased with the performance of its locally developed Harfang UAV and after a year of deliberation decided is buy American RQ-9 Reapers with the intention of getting more and standardizing on this proven UAV design. Currently two Harfang UAVs are present in Mali (operating from neighboring Niger) along with some American RQ-9s.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meter (36 foot) long aircraft, with a 21.3 meter (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1 Predator. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations.
The Harfang was based on the Israeli Heron Shoval UAV, which in turn is very similar to the MQ-1 and sold well to foreign customers who could not obtain the MQ-1. In addition to being one of the primary UAVs for many armed forces (Israel, India, Turkey, Russia, France, Brazil, El Salvador), the United States, Canada, and Australia have either bought, leased, or licensed manufacture of the Heron. France has bought four Harfang ("Eagle") UAVs and used them in Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali over the last four years. The RQ-9 was a more recent and more mature design, which the British think highly of. The RQ-9 has an impressive combat record in Afghanistan and elsewhere (Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia). So France decided to switch.
The U.S. will not provide Predators or Reapers weapons ready, forcing foreign users to develop their own equipment for arming the UAVs. France also, like other Predator and Reaper users, has to spend a lot of money to develop satellite link technology and set up a ground control facility (or pay to use the American one in the United States or, possibly, the new control center that just opened in Britain).